Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Appreciating Hauerwas: One Hand Clapping

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Appreciating Hauerwas: One Hand Clapping

Article excerpt

The work of Stanley Hauerwas seems increasingly influential in theological and ethical circles. I think this influence is largely salutary, though it has what I see as some potentially troubling dimensions. Both for its influence as a whole, and for its insights, it merits close attention-critical and approbational-by committed Christians, and particularly those in teaching roles in the churches, especially in the United States. This essay, and Hauerwas's extremely charitable response following it, together constitute an attempt to express the real and urgent value of what Hauerwas has to say, and to chart some of the ways in which what he has to say-or, to be more careful, what people take away from his work-is a matter of contestable value. I underscore contestable-it is my good fortune to be able to include Hauerwas's response, not simply because it allows each reader to "decide for yourself," but also because I-and I suspect Hauerwas as well-genuinely feel the force of some of the claims made on both sides of these issues, and feel troubled that my affirmations may have elided something of value in their implicit denials. Such is the sinful state of our minds, that we always know more than we can comprehend in a single viewpoint.

My essay was initially presented on a panel dedicated to Hauerwas's work (with him as respondent) at the South-East Conference on the Study of Religion in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in March of 1999. The essay bears some of the marks of that occasion, particularly in its rather personal Introduction. I keep the Introduction as personal as it originally was, not simply because Hauerwas's work inspires such self indulgences, but also because I think some of the individual characteristics of my response to Hauerwas have a more-than-personal relevance-or rather, that they resemble others' personal encounters with Hauerwas's work. In this way as in many others his work is truly, and laudably, particularistic; it is the rare theological writer nowadays who, like Hauerwas, inspires genuine personal grappling.

Introduction

Why do we read other people's works When we ponder this question, which is rare enough, we usually stiff arm it by platitudes about "appreciating" other people's "positions." But more typically our engagements with others are so glib as to elide the question altogether. Either way, too often we engage people only to justify why such an engagement didn't need to happen in the first place, either because they are simply wrong, or because we are already right in the way they are. I like [x] and so should you; I don't like [y] and you shouldn't either. Yahoo and boo: Too often our engagements with other thinkers seem more like rooting for sports teams than they do a thoughtful attempt to encounter them. The egocentricity of such encounters is important, for overall assessments of thinkers are often too totally self effacing; they seem to suggest that such essentially evaluative relations are the only sort of engagement with the thinker one could have. But to treat the other as wholly other is to act as if they have no words to speak to you, no words that you might take up as your own and so stand, in that inheritance, in a living relationship with them; it is to treat them as if they were dead. To use an engagement with someone's thought as the occasion for a global judgment on his work seems to gesture at the obituary; it seems as if, like the prodigal son, we are asking for our inheritance a bit too hastily. So I think it's important to keep in mind that we not grade the thinker, but think with him.

These issues always press most upon me when I read the work of thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas. Stanley's work has been foundational to my own theological education. I discovered that theology was for me the day that he came to my campus and people walked out of his talk. When I saw them leaving out of rage at what he-a professorwas saying, I said to myself, "Now that's more like it. …

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